Life is space is really animated – Thoughts on Star Trek: Lower Decks

(image via IMP Awards)

Star Trek is serious. Very, very SERIOUS.

Sure, it can be goofy at times – think “The Trouble With Tribbles” (The Original Series), “Deja Q” (The Next Generation), “Body and Soul” (Voyager) and “Our Man Bashir” (Deep Space Nine) – but mostly it is all Prime Directives, deadly “Away Missions” and Important encounters with alien races new and old.

And that is of course why so many people love it – it offers an idealistic, near-utopian view of the far future in which humanity and many, though not all extraterrestrials are working to make the galaxy a better place.

It’s reassuring especially when pandemics are hurtling around the globe with merciless, ruthless efficiency and fascists keep trying to kill democracy.

So, you could be forgiven for wondering if a show like Star Trek: Lower Decks, which is both lavishly, colourfully animated, and thigh-slappingly silly and hilarious, might lower the seriously hopeful tone a little … or a lot.

The thing is though that it doesn’t.

Sure, it is so ridiculously funny at times, replete with visual gags – think D’Vana Tendi’s (Noël Wells) genetically-engineered freak of a dog and it’s transformation into a rolling cube as it wanders past her and Brad Boimler (Jack Quaid) – and witty quips, but that doesn’t mean it becomes some sort of pointless joke for joke’s sake.

Created by Mike McMahan, Lower Decks is a genius creation, able to both affectionately pillory the franchise while still staying very much under its umbrella and celebrating the very spirit that powers all the other shows that have both come our way and are about to fill our TV and streaming screens.

Keeping that balance just so requires clever writing, pitch-perfect characterisation, on-point voice work and stories that are both funny and poignant, all of which the show has in profuse quantities.

It is obvious from episode 1, “Second Contact”, which opens with earnest, super-ambitious and king of rules and regs observance, Ensign Boimler recording a practice Captain’s Log in a closet, a classic maneuvre by the man who desperately wants a promotion to the USS Titan, captained by Will Riker (who, yes, makes an animated appearance later in the series, as does Deanna Troi, the two characters played by Jonathan Frakes and Marina Sirtis respectively).

He is discovered in full recording mode by Ensign Beckett Mariner (Tawny Newsome), a super competent, whippet-smart who specialises in breaking rules and annoying the Bridge Crew, chief among them the Captain, Carol Freeman (Dawnn Lewis) who is — SPOILER ALERT! — Mariner’s mum.

Thus ensues much mocking and hilarity, a perfectly wrought character moment that establishes not simply who Boimler and Mariner are as people but how they interact as friends and fellow members of the Lower Decks where everyone sleeps in Japanese love hotel sleep pods and privacy and epic narrative moments are rare to non-existent.

It is a stellar piece of efficient but fulsome writing that continues on in an introductory episode where we meet Orion medical/science team member Ensign D’Vana Tendi, who is Pollyanna and Anne of Green Gables x 1000, eager to prove not all members of her race are pirates and Ensign Rutherford (Eugene Cordero), a newly-minted cyborg engineering wunderkind geek who is crippled by raging insecurity and some amusing social interaction issues.

Our introduction to the four key characters of Lower Decks and to the rich friendships and supportive camaraderie they build with each other in a world where cleaning waste of replicators and scrubbing crap off shuttles is a standard part of the day, is flawlessly good, and in no time flat we feel like we know these people, understand their less than glamourous world and why they are eager to escape it (well, Mariner doesn’t seem to but hey, pssst!, she really does).

Which is just as well because the pilot episode also involves an alien-sourced rage virus which turns everyone on the ship, well, almost everyone, into furious, flesh-chomping, black goo-spewing zombies, an impossible to rescue situation that is, in fact, rescued by the gang from the lower decks.

All credit naturally goes to the officers but then that’s something that Mariner (who is the real star and heart and soul of the show, though you get every indication that honoour call fall to Boimler), Boimler, Tendi and Rutherford all seem resigned to, the ones who set things up so the officers which include the riotously macho human first officer Jack Ransom (Jerry O’Connell), cat-like Caitian Doctor T’Ana (Gillian Vigman) and hot-header tactical Bajoran tactical officer Shaxs (Fred Tatasciore) can claim all the glory.

It is the way of the lower decks but the gang all assure each other that it’s just the way they like it, which is kind of but not entirely true, and that it’s their friendly togetherness, which is palpable and a real enjoyable part of the show, that matters more than anything.

Another fun feature of a show fair to bursting with them are the Easter eggs which pay homage to just about every aspect of Star Trek you can imagine.

Take episode episode 8, “Veritas”, in which the lower decks crew are subject to what is referred to as “Alien trial 101”, in which it looks like they are witnesses to some grievous act committed by the Bridge crew.

Nothing is as it seems, however – it rarely is in a show which switches from deadly serious to hilariously comedic in a sharply-written heartbeat – and while we appear to be in a scene straight out of The Undiscovered Country in which Kirk and McCoy are put on trial by the Klingons, Lower Decks subverts it all gloriously well, delivering up an episode both earnest and parody-rich.

We also see references to The Wrath of Khan, Vulcan nerve pinches, Uhura’s fan dance (courtesy of a very nervous, awkward Rutherford), Geordi LaForge as a teddy bear, Q, Picard and the Borg … and well, so many Star Trek goodies that you’ll be pausing and rewinding over and over to catch and remember them all.

It all speaks to the care and attention taken to make Lower Decks, which offers ten near-perfectly rendered episodes and in so doing offers a funny, affecting, heartfelt, loopy, parody rich but serious when it needs to be new perspective on Star Trek, proving that there is much life and variety left in the franchise yet, which is a good thing considering all the shows coming our way.

Posted In TV

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